We all know regular exercise is good for us. Not only is it good but we need movement to live. We know the benefits include everything from stress relief, improving our mental health, and boosting our energy, to controlling our weight and strengthening our muscles and bones. It is also common knowledge that consistent physical activity can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, decrease blood pressure, promote better sleep, and have a positive effect on our hormones and sexuality. Simply put, we are meant to move. Charaka, the ancient author of one of the main Ayurvedic texts, wrote:
“From physical exercise, one gets lightness, a capacity for work, firmness, tolerance of difficulties, elimination of impurities, and stimulation of digestion.”
This shows us that the importance of exercise has been taught for thousands of years!
But can something so beneficial actually harm us? Using the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda as a guide, we can soundly answer “yes.” And when we look at exercise through an Ayurvedic lens, we see how people of different constitutions are better suited for different types of workouts. According to Ayurveda, all of nature is made of the elements, ether (or space), air, fire, water, and earth. Since you and I are part of nature, we are also made of these elements in varying amounts. However, we are all unique in our make-up and that is one of the things Ayurveda celebrates—our individuality.
Just imagine if, when we were born, the doctor, mid-wife, or whoever assisted in bringing us into the world turned to our parents and said, “Congratulations, you are blessed with a beautiful baby girl. Here is her owner’s manual. This book has all the information you will need to raise a healthy, balanced human being.” Our parents would have known all the ins and outs required to help us maintain a balanced state. But that isn’t the case for most of us. When we are blessed to find Ayurveda, we finally receive our owner’s manual, and we can apply these ancient practices to our lives.
Not All Exercise Routines Are Created Equally
So how does exercise fit into our doshic makeup? There are two fundamental principles in Ayurveda. First, like increases like, and second, opposites can bring balance. If we consider the elements we are made of and use these two pillars of wisdom, we can create a healthy and appropriate exercise program specifically for our needs. Unfortunately, if we are in a state of imbalance, we will be attracted to activities that keep us out of balance instead of activities to bring us back into harmony and help us maintain our well-being. This is why we need the owner’s manual: to help us make better decisions and to attain and sustain balance.
According to Ayurveda, there are three governing dosha energies, vata, kapha, and pitta, which are all formed by a blending of the five elements. Varying amounts of these three doshas create our unique constitution. We can have one primary, two primary, or maybe all three have a significant presence in the make-up of our constitution. Let’s look at the different blends of the elements and learn how we can bring ourselves into balance by implementing an appropriate exercise routine for our constitution.
Vata Needs Rhythm & Routine
Vata dosha is a combination of the elements air and ether. In the body, vata is involved with all movement—voluntary and involuntary. When we look at any dosha, we also need to consider its qualities or attributes. Vata dosha has the qualities of cold, light, dry, and mobile, and a vata dominate person will naturally be drawn to exercise that reflects these qualities. Vata type constitutions are typically on the go, so they will be attracted to exercise that involves moving quickly. Running, cycling, faster paced yoga classes, and basically anything that keeps them on the move is going to feel right. However, because of the quality of lightness that may show up in their physical structure, they can easily push themselves too hard, become depleted, and strain their bodies, making low impact exercises a much better choice. For the vata individual to feel grounded, they need to choose exercises that will apply the qualities that are opposite of those inherent in their nature. This would be warming, grounding, steady, and strength building type workouts.
Staying in a routine is very important to someone who has a lot of vata in their constitution, and the regularity will promote a sort of stability in their body and mind.
Kapha Needs to Get Moving
Now, at the opposite end of the spectrum is the governing energy of kapha. This dosha is made of earth and water. The blending of the earth and water elements creates the qualities of heavy, slow, and stable. We don’t have to worry about a kapha individual pushing themselves too hard or moving too quickly. Instead, we need to motivate this sweet loving individual to get up off the couch, get outside, and move! Where a regular routine balances the air and ether individual, it becomes a rut for the earth and water person if the workouts are not varied.
Cardio and aerobic exercises are excellent choices. If the choice for the day is walking, then it should be a brisk walk to get their energy and lungs moving and their heart pumping. I find it very helpful for the kapha type person to have a workout buddy who is not another kapha. Running, jogging, or even an elliptical machine can work well. Because this individual will have a larger bone structure and be more sturdy, their body can endure more strenuous types of exercise. Kapha will benefit the most from being physical during the morning hours of 6–10 a.m., which is the kapha time of day. This will help to stimulate the lymphatic and digestive systems and encourage sustained energy throughout the day.
Pitta Needs to Keep Their Cool
Our third constitution is pitta. The fire and water elements of this dosha govern all aspects of transformation and metabolic activity in the body and mind. The fire element in pitta will be a natural motivator to get out and exercise. They are an athletic bunch who love to compete with others and themselves. Keeping in mind “like increases like,” the fiery pitta needs to be careful not to burn themselves out or push too hard. I usually advise the pitta individual to work out to about 70% of their capacity. This would translate to about 110% of the workout that vata and kapha would do! Pitta should also be careful to not exercise during the heat of the day or in a hot room. I’m sorry my fiery friends, no hot yoga for you—this type of exercise can cause pittas to become overheated in mind and body.
A nice cool shower or swim afterwards will be helpful as well. Water sports such as swimming, water polo, kayaking, or even fly fishing are also good choices.
Pro Tip: Take It Outside
Finally, and possibly the most important tip for every body type: I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to work out is in nature and not in an artificial environment. This has a profoundly positive effect on our overall well-being and helps us stay in tune with nature. Remember you are nature, so this will help connect you to yourself. While you do your exercise in the great outdoors, keep the earbuds out. Please don’t check out while you work out. Instead, check in. Listen to the birds, the wind, and the leaves. Allow yourself to breathe deeply and take in your surroundings. Feel the prana, your vital life energy, flow through your body and balance your mind.